ABSTRACT In the aftermath of the famine in 1962, Mao Zedong took
formal responsibility for the failure of the Great Leap Forward in the
name of the central government. Thousands of local cadres were made
scapegoats and were legally punished. This article focuses on the question of
how the different levels of the Chinese state, such as the central government,
the province and the county, have dealt with the question of responsibility
for the famine. The official explanation for the failure of the Great Leap
will be compared to unofficial memories of intellectuals, local cadres and villagers.
The case study of Henan province shows that local cadres are highly
dissatisfied with the official evaluation of responsibility. Villagers bring suffering,
starvation and terror into the discourse, but these memories are constructed
in a way to preserve village harmony. This article explains why
these different discourses about responsibility of the famine are unlinked
against the background of the “dual society”; the separation between
urban and rural China. Finally, it will be shown that the Communist
Party was unable to convince parts of society and the Party to accept the
Your dogs and swine eat the food of men, and you do not make any restrictive
arrangements. There are people dying from famine and you do not issue the stores
of your granaries for them. When people die, you say “It is not owing to me, it is
owing to the year.” In which way does this differ from stabbing a man and killing
him and saying – “It was not I; it was the weapon?” Let your Majesty cease to lay
the blame on the year, and instantly from all the nation the people will come to you.
In the world view of imperial China, natural disaster and famine have been
seen as indicators of the fate of a dynasty. According to traditional Confucian
values, the ruler should not ignore his responsibility for nourishing the people
1 James Legge (ed.), The Chinese Classics, Vol. 2, The Works of Mencius (Hong Kong: Hong Kong
University Press, 1970) p. 132.
© The China Quarterly, 2010 doi:10.1017/S0305741009991123
and organizing famine aid in a case of a natural disaster.2 After the foundation of
“New China,” between 15 and 40 million people starved to death in the famine
caused by the Great Leap Forward in the years between 1959 and 1961.3 Despite
the fact that this famine represents the greatest human and economic catastrophe
in the history of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), the Communist Party of
China (CCP) and its leader Mao Zedong managed to stay in power. How could
the peasants and the Party members live on after such a human disaster and the
total failure of government policy? This article focuses on how the different levels
of the state and society, including the central government, the province, the
county and villages, dealt with the famine and handled the question of
The aim of this article is not to explain who is responsible for the famine,5 but
to understand in which ways the Chinese state and society have handled this
question and reflect it in contemporary memories.6 In this context, I treat memories
as a social construction according to the needs of a group in the present.7
Maurice Halbwachs introduced the term collective memory: different social
groups such as classes, religious communities or families have their own collective
memories, which are connected to special places where the group lives. If the
2 Jennifer Eileen Downs, “Famine policy and discourses on famine in Ming China 1368–1644,” unpublished
PhD thesis, University of Minnesota, 1995), p. 42. see also Pierre-Etienne Will, R. Bin Wong and
James Lee, Nourish the People: The State Civilian Granary System in China, 1650–1850 (Ann Arbor:
Center for Chinese Studies, 1991).
3 The number of people who died as a result of the famine remains a controversial issue. Based on Chinese
population statistics that were published in the early 1980s, scholars estimate different figures. Peng
Xizhe calculated 23 million deaths in 14 provinces (Peng Xizhe, “Demographic consequences of the
Great Leap Forward in China’s provinces,” Population and Development Review, Vol. 13, No. 4
(1987), p. 649). Ansley Coale came to the conclusion that 16.5 million people died, and Basil Ashton
counted 30 million deaths and 30 missing births (Basil Ashton and Kenneth Hill, “Famine in China,
1958–1961,” Population and Development Review, Vol. 10, No. 4 (1984), p. 614). Jasper Becker estimated
43 to 46 million casualties on the basis of an internal investigation of the Chinese government
(Jasper Becker, Hungry Ghosts – China’s Secret Famine (London: Murray 1996), p. 272).
4 This article is an outcome of my dissertation. Felix Wemheuer, Steinnudeln: Ländliche Erinnerungen und
staatliche Vergangenheitsbewältigung der „Großen Sprung“ – Hungersnot in der chinesischen Provinz
Henan (Stone Noodles: Rural and Official Memories of the Great Leap Famine in the Chinese
Province Henan) (Vienna: Peter Lang, 2007).
5 Western academics have already debated the question of who developed and promoted the idea of the
Great Leap Forward in the central leadership. On this point see Roderick MacFarquhar, The Origins of
the Cultural Revolution 2 – The Great Leap Forward 1958–1960 (New York: Oxford University Press,
1983); Fredrick Teiwes and Warren Sun, China’s Road to Disaster – Mao, Central Politicians, and
Provincial Leaders in the Unfolding of the Great Leap Forward 1955–1959 (London: Sharpe, 1999);
David Bachman, Bureaucracy, Economy and Leadership in China – The Institutional Origins of the
Great Leap Forward (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991); Alfred L. Chan, Mao’s Crusade –
Politics and Implementations in China’s Great Leap Forward (New York: Oxford University Press,
2001); and Thomas Bernstein, “Mao Zedong and the famine of 1959–1960: a study of wilfulness,”
The China Quarterly, No. 186 (2006), pp. 421–45.
6 Regarding memories see Erik Mueggler, “Spectral chains: remembering the Great Leap Forward famine
in a Yi community,” and Kimberley Manning “Communes, canteens, and creches: the gendered politics
of remembering the Great Leap Forward,” in Ching Kwan Lee and Guobin Yang (eds.), Re-envisioning
the Chinese Revolution – The Politics and Poetics of Collective Memories in Reform China (Stanford:
Stanford University Press, 2007); and Jun Jing, The Temple of Memories – History, Power and
Morality in a Chinese Village (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996), p. 100.
7 Maurice Halbwachs, Das Gedächtnis und seine sozialen Bedingungen (The Social Frames of Memory)
(Frankfurt (M): Suhrkamp, 1985), p. 360.
Dealing with Responsibility for the Great Leap Famine 177
group splits or these places are destroyed, there is no longer a basis to reconstruct
First, this article describes how the central state and the official historiography
of the Party have dealt with the famine. Official memories were created by highranking
Party historians who were loyal to the interpretation given by the central
government.9 Second, it shows how intellectuals, local cadres and journalists use
the gaps in the official canon to present their own views of the past. Despite the
censorship, unofficial memories are published in historical magazines and books
as long as the interpretations do not challenge the official interpretation directly.
Against this background, memories in the PRC could be divided between official
and unofficial. As Ruby Watson has pointed out in her studies about Eastern
Europe, the socialist states failed to convince society of their interpretations of
the past. An alternative “underground memory” always existed.10
Third, this article analyses the official history of Henan province11 and shows
how the provincial leadership handled the question of responsibility. In 1958,
Henan became a model province of the Great Leap for the whole of China.
Since Henan was the site of the most radical implementation of the Great
Leap policies, the famine was more severe here than most other regions.
Henan was the location of an episode of mass starvation in the notorious
“Xinyang Incident” (Xinyang shijian 信阳事件), which in turn became the catalyst
for the central government to stop the famine.12 In this context, I explore the
ways in which three counties in Henan and its historians dealt with the famine.
The article then turns to the memories of peasants and local cadres in three villages
based on a case study of three counties in Henan where I conducted oral
history interviews with cadres and peasants in 2005. Given that peasants normally
do not write their memoirs, oral history is a way to discover how people
at the grass roots level of society remember the past and how they answer the
question of responsibility. Finally, the article concludes by answering questions
about the reasons for missing links between different discourses relating to
The Central State: Explanation within the Soviet Tradition
In late 1960, the Party leadership was no longer able to ignore the famine.
To justify the new policies, the central government had to give an explanation
8 Maurice Halbwachs, Stätten der Verkündigungen im Heiligen Land (The Legendary Topography of the
Gospels in the Holy Land) (Konstanz: UVK Verlagsgesellschaft, 2003), p. 166.
9 Regarding party history in China see Susanne Weigelin-Schwiedrzik, “Party historiography,” in
Jonathan Unger (ed.), Using the Past to Serve the Present – Historiography and Politics in
Contemporary China (London: M.E. Sharpe, 1993).
10 Rubie S. Watson (ed.), Memory, History and Opposition under State Socialism (Houston: School of
American Research Press, 1994), p. 4.
11 Regarding the Great Leap Forward in Henan see Jean-Luc Domenach, The Origins of the Great Leap
Forward – The Case of One Province (Oxford: Westminster Press, 1995). This book focuses on the politics
in Henan from 1949 to 1958 and not on the famine.
12 Interview with a Party historian from Henan, 5 August 2005 (Zhengzhou).
178 The China Quarterly, 201, March 2010, pp. 176–194
for what went wrong during the Great Leap Forward. It had to decide whether or
not officials of the central, provincial or local leadership should be replaced. The
explanation for the failure of the Great Leap was linked to the question of
responsibility, although assessing responsibility was, as shown below, a highly
political and problematic exercise. Given the visibility of the famine and the longstanding
linkage between state legitimacy and ability to provide sustenance for
the population, assessing responsibility was critical for the legitimacy of the
CCP, both for Party members and the population at large.
Between late 1960 and 1961, the Party made great efforts to fight the famine.
The Chinese government imported grain to feed starving peasants, public dining
halls were abolished and private plots reintroduced. The first important discussion
on the question of the responsibility for the failure of the Great Leap
took place at the so-called 7,000 cadres meeting in 1962.
To analyse the question of how the central leadership handled the question of
responsibility for the famine, this article compares three documents which play a
central role in the official historiography in China: first, the speech that Chinese
president Liu Shaoqi gave at the 7,000 cadres conference in January 1962;
second, the “Resolution for Party history since the foundation of the People’s
Republic of China,” promulgated by the central leadership in 1981 as a new
canon on post-1949 history; and third, the two 1993 volumes Reflections on
Certain Major Decisions and Events by the retired central leader Bo Yibo
which could be read as an official comment on the canon.13 Despite the fact
that Bo Yibo is a veteran cadre and not a Party historian, his interpretation is
often cited in official and unofficial books about the history of the PRC from
1949 to 1965.
In all three documents, the main problem is not the famine itself, which is
attributed to the failure of economic construction, “leftist” mistakes and the
split in the Party at the Lushan conference. The documents focus on the mistakes
and shortcomings of Party policies, not on the scale of human suffering in the
villages. The explanation provided by the central government was within the
framework of orthodox Marxism-Leninism. The three documents mention very
similar reasons for the failure of the Great Leap Forward: leftist mistakes, the
lack of experience with socialist construction and the weather as an external
Within the framework of the Marxist-Leninist Party historiography, established
in the 1938 Soviet Short Course of the History of the Communist Party
of the Soviet Union, the history of the Party was written as a struggle of the correct
line of the centre against rightist and leftist tendencies.14 In Liu Shaoqi’s
speech, the Resolution and Bo Yibo’s book, the Great Leap was presented as
13 Bo Yibo, Ruogan zhongda juece yu shijian de huigu (Reflections on Certain Major Decisions and Events)
(Beijing: Zhongyang dangxiao chubanshe, 1993).
14 For a more detailed comparison with the Soviet Union see Felix Wemheuer, “Regime changes of memories:
creating official history of the Ukrainian and Chinese famine under state socialism and after the
Cold War,” Kritika Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History, Vol. 10, No. 1 (2009), pp. 31–59.
Dealing with Responsibility for the Great Leap Famine 179
a leftist mistake which the central government committed as a result of overenthusiasm.
As a result, the history of leftist mistakes was written as a tragedy
of good intentions.15 Crimes which caused millions of deaths could be
de-emphasized as mistakes. Both the theoretical explanation and the language
had been borrowed from the Soviet tradition. In a speech in 1980 regarding
Party history, Deng Xiaoping said that Mao Zedong, along with other leading
comrades from the central leadership such as Liu Shaoqi, Zhou Enlai and himself,
had became a “hot head” (tounao fare 头脑发热) during the high tide of the
Great Leap.16 The Resolution explained that facing victory the comrades from
the central government and the lower ranks became arrogant and self-satisfied
(shengli mianqian zizhang le jiaoao ziman qingxu 胜利面前滋长了骄傲自满情
绪).17 These were almost the same words which were used in the Chinese translation
of the Short Course to explain the over-enthusiasm (chengjiu er tounao fare
成就而头脑发热) of local cadres during the collectivization of agriculture in the
Soviet Union in 1929.18
In this famous internal speech in 1962, Liu Shaoqi quoted a peasant from
Hunan who said that the catastrophe was 70 per cent man-made and 30 per
cent caused by nature. Liu acknowledged only that this evaluation was true in
some regions of China.19 In 1981, when the central committee established the
new canon, they did not go so far. The Resolution mentioned leftism first,
then the weather and the retreat of the Soviet experts. Another interesting fact
is that in his speech Liu did not even mention the retreat of the Soviet experts
as a reason for the failure of the Great Leap. In sum, the external forces like
the climate and the policy of the Soviet Union played a greater role in the
Resolution of 1981 than in the internal explanation in the aftermath of the famine
in 1962. Like leftism, the lack of experience in socialist construction was a justification
which was often used in the Soviet Union. Lui Shaoqi presented the failure
of Great Leap as a “study fee” (xuefei 学费).20
At the 7,000 cadres conference in 1962, Mao Zedong acknowledged formal
responsibility for the leftist mistakes in the name of the Central Committee21;
in particular he cited the steel campaign, the “backyard furnace,” and unfeasibly
15 See William A. Joseph, “A tragedy of good intentions – post-Mao views of the Great Leap Forward,”
Modern China, Vol. 12, No. 4 (1986), pp. 419–57.
16 Deng Xiaoping: “Dui qi cao ‘guanyu jianguo yilai de ruogan lizhi wenti de jueyi’ de yijian” (“Draft the
suggestions for ‘Resolution on some questions concerning the history of the Party since the founding of
the PRC’”), in Deng Xiaoping wenxian, Vol. 2 (Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, 1983), p. 296.
17 “Guanyu jianguo yilai dang de ruogan lishi wenti de jueyi” (“Resolution on some questions concerning
the history of the Party since the founding of the PRC”) Renmin ribao (People’s Daily), 1 July 1981.
18 Liangong (bu) dangshi jianming jiaocheng (Short Course in History of the Communist Party of the Soviet
Union) (Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, 1975), p. 339.
19 Lui Shaoqi, “Zai kuoda de zhongyang gongzuo huiyi shang de jianghua” (“Speech on the expanded
working conference of the Central Committee”), in Zhonggong zhongyang wenxian yanjiushi:
Jianguo yilai zhongyao wenjian xuanbian (A Collection of Important Documents after the Foundation
of the State) (Beijing: Zhonggong zhongyang wenxian chubanshe, 1997), Vol. 15, p. 88.
20 Ibid. p. 23.
21 Bo Yibo, Reflections on Certain Major Decisions and Events, Vol. 2, p. 27.
180 The China Quarterly, 201, March 2010, pp. 176–194
high planning targets and grain procurement quotas.22 Mao took responsibility for
these policies as the chairman of the CCP. In his speech about Party history in
1980, Deng Xiaoping again assigned responsibility for the errors of the Great Leap
to the central leadership.23 The same explanation was given in the Resolution of
1981 and in the book by Bo Yibo. In addition to the acknowledgement of formal
responsibility, direct responsibility was heaped on local cadres for violation of Party
rules and crimes against the masses. Liu Shaoqi attacked them for using a
Kuomintang work style.24 Using local cadres as scapegoats was a long-practised tradition
in both the Soviet and Chinese tradition. In China, this tradition goes back to
themyth of the good emperorwhowants the best for the people and evil local officials
who are driven by selfish motives. Thousands of local cadres were sent to prison.
Additionally, villagers were criticized for their ideology of “peasant egalitarianism”
(nongmin juedui pingjunzhuyi 农民绝对平均主义) by Bo Yibo which was seen as a
reason for the radicalization of the Great Leap in 1958 and the “wind of communism.”
25 This theory was used by Stalin in the early 1930s when he blamed the rural
workers for bringing ideas of peasant egalitarianism into the factories.26
To summarize, the central government assumed responsibility for the famine
only indirectly and formally. The Party historiography excluded the suffering
and starvation of the peasants from their discourses. Peasants were not accorded
the status of victims.
Memories of Intellectuals and the Question of Responsibility
In this context, I raise the question of whether intellectuals in China have challenged
the official interpretation of responsibility. In contrast to the peasants,
in the PRC intellectuals have access to public space and they publish their memoirs
of the Great Leap in books and historical magazines.27
In 2001, I interviewed eight urban intellectuals who were sent to the countryside
in 1958 in order to support the Great Leap. In the context of this qualitative
case study, I held oral history interviews with retired teachers of the Agriculture
University and People’s University in Beijing. These intellectuals shared the official
interpretation of the leftist tragedy of good intentions.28 For example, Liu
22 Feng Xianzhi and Jin Chongji, Mao Zedong zhuan 1949–1976 (A Biography of Mao Zedong) (Beijing:
Zhongyangwenxian chubanshe, 2003), Vol. 2, p. 1181.
23 Deng Xiaoping, “Draft the suggestions,” p. 296.
24 Lui Shaoqi, “Speech on the expanded working conference,” p. 39.
25 Bo Yibo, Reflections on Certain Major Decisions and Events, Vol. 2, p. 1284.
26 Stalin, Gesammelte Werke, Vol. 13, p. 105.
27 For example Ge Jinwei, “Fudan daxue de ‘Dayuejin’ guihua” (“The planning of the ‘Great Leap
Forward’ at Fudan University”), and Wei Junyi, “‘Hou re’ de niandai, hou re de xin” (“Hot time,
hot heart”) in Zhang Zhanbin, Liu Jiehui and Zhang Guohua (eds.), “Dayuejin” he sannian kunan
shiqi de Zhongguo (The “Great Leap Forward” and China in the Period of Three Years of Difficulties)
(Beijing: Zhongguo shangye chubanshe, 2001), and Liu Lian, “Xushui ‘dayuejin’ qinshiji” (“The
‘Great Leap Forward’ in Xushui – experienced history”), Bainian Chao, No. 7 (1999), pp. 53–59.
28 Felix Wemheuer, Chinas Großer Sprung nach vorne (1958–1961) Von der kommunistischen Offensive in
die Hungersnot – Intellektuelle erinnern sich (China’s Great Leap Forward 1958–1961: From the
Communist Offensive to the Famine – Intellectuals Remember) (Münster: LitVerlag, 2004).
Dealing with Responsibility for the Great Leap Famine 181
Lian, a female teacher at the Agricultural University, was sent with hundreds of
colleagues to the model county Xushui in Hebei province. In her memoirs and the
interview, Liu Lian presents over-enthusiastic local cadres who reported false
production figures, and ignorant peasants who divided the cloth of the
co-operative store “to each according to his needs” during the high tide of egalitarianism.
In contrast to the local people, she realized at once that the steel campaign
and the deep ploughing were disastrously destructive. According to her
memoirs, she protested against the smashing of a water wheel for the steel
As the wok of the last family was destroyed, it was still not enough to meet the production goals
in a [cadre’s] notebook. He moved his head, came back and wanted to smash the waterwheel of
the production team. I couldn’t stand this and stood in his way: “The waterwheel is an important
production means and is needed for irrigation.” With cold eyes he looked at me: “Would
you like to take over my position as a cadre and look how it is?” For a moment I did not know
what to say. He moved back to the cadres of the production team standing next to him and
commanded: “Smash it!” After the three waterwheels were destroyed, the necessary figure
Liu Lian’s story is interesting within the context of responsibility. Local cadres
seem to have no choice, because they are responsible for the fulfilment of the
steel quota and not for its disastrous results in the villages. Liu Lian presents herself
as a good Marxist-Leninist who tried to prevent the catastrophic results of the
policies of the Great Leap in the name of the Party. In her story, she reminded the
local cadres of their responsibility for the villagers and their economic resources.
However, Liu Lian became silent under the political pressure in the end. In the
campaign against Peng Dehuai and “right-wing opportunists,” her husband,
the famous Party historian He Ganzhi, was singled out to be struggled against.
In this argumentation, the intellectuals had no other choice than to hope for a
policy change from above.
Other intellectuals saw themselves as naïve children who blindly trusted
Chairman Mao and the Communist Party. They hoped under this leadership
the Chinese nation would overcome times of difficulties.30 Wei Junyi who, in
1958, had been sent to the Zhangjiakou region in Hebei province, writes in his
memoirs that he did not understand anything at all, after he saw the campaigns
of the Great Leap with his own eyes. In the article “Hot time, hot heart,” he compares
himself with a naïve child who is beaten by his mother again and again, but
still loves her.31 Casting himself in the role of dependent and ignorant child, he
avoids any responsibility.
In the memoirs and oral history interviews of many intellectuals about the
Great Leap, the famine and suffering of the peasants is not an important
topic. They remember the villagers as a faceless mass who blindly executed the
29 Liu Lian, “The ‘Great Leap Forward’ in Xushui,” p. 57.
30 Interview with Zhang Chengguang, May 2002 (Beijing), interview with Zhang Zhiguo, 5 August 2005
31 Wei Junyi, “Hot time, hot heart,” p. 143.
182 The China Quarterly, 201, March 2010, pp. 176–194
orders of the Party.32 In contrast to “rightists,” the urban intellectuals who were
sent to the countryside to support the Great Leap had privileges in the state
supply system and most of them left the villages in 1959 before the famine
broke out in earnest. Their greatest fear was to be labelled “right-wing opportunists.”
Knowledge of the latest People’s Daily article and the correct Party line
was more important for their survival than was access to food. Since intellectuals
have been left out of official accounts of responsibility, they can avoid challenging
official historiography when they present their versions of either dependency
or attempting to speak truth to power. The turning point in their biographies was
not the famine but the Cultural Revolution, when most of them lost their privileged
status. It is thus not surprising that the Cultural Revolution looms much
larger as a topic in the memoirs of intellectuals, and that there is much less attention
paid to the Great Leap.
Local Cadres and their Discourses of Suffering, Starvation and Terror
Since the late 1990s, a small number of local cadres have published their memoirs
of the Great Leap Forward in historical magazines or in volumes on post-1949
history. They are already retired and some of them are using the last years of
their lives to tell their own version of the famine. In contrast to intellectuals,
they address the question of suffering, starvation and the terror of the villagers.
Wang Ding, the Party secretary of Huangjiang county in Guangxi province,
was removed from office in 1957. He remembers the policy of terror of his successor
in detail. After the false report of a bumper harvest, the cadres started a
campaign to collect the “hidden grain” from the peasants. As a result, a famine
broke out in the spring of 1959. The new Party secretary ordered the execution of
every person who tried to steal grain from the full grain stores.33 In order to prevent
a mass exodus to Guizhou province, peasants were tortured and beaten to
death. Wang Ding tells the reader nothing about his own position during the famine
and does not even mention the role of the central or the provincial government.
The retired cadre describes his successor as someone who was willing to
climb over mountains of corpses to build up socialism. As in the official version,
Wang presents local cadres as the major culprits, but he describes their “mistakes”
in detail. Unlike other memoirs, Wang here mentions the full name of
this main culprit, Zeng Yang. In 1961, Zeng Yang was expelled from the CCP
and sentenced to five years in prison.34
In contrast to the official Party historiography, Wang Ding broaches the issues
of starvation, terror and suffering in detail. He also answers the question of
responsibility within the official framework. As a local cadre, he presents another
32 Felix Wemheuer, Chinas Großer Sprung nach vorne, p. 93.
33 Wang Ding, “Yige da weiqing’ de muhou” (“The background of a great Sputnik”), in Zhang, Liu and
Zhang, The “Great Leap Forward” and China in the Period of Three Years of Difficulties, p. 58.
34 Ibid. p. 59.
Dealing with Responsibility for the Great Leap Famine 183
county official as the main culprit for particular crimes. Wang himself is the good
guy in his story, because he was removed from office in 1957 for supporting the
household responsibility system (baochan daohu 包产到户).
Liang Zhiyuan’s memoirs are another example of an impressive description of
starvation and terror.35 He held the position of vice-director of the bureau of the
People’s Congress of Bo county in Anhui province. According to him, the famine
in Bo county was caused by false reports and unfeasibly high planning targets
and grain procurement quotas. Liang remembers how the cadres used hunger
as a weapon to control the peasants. The Party committee established check
points with armed militia at every bus station and crossroads to prevent the villagers
from escaping. Despite this control, over 40,000 peasants managed to flee
to Henan province in the winter of 1959. In 1960 the county Party committee
gave Liang the job of investigating the starvation in the production brigades.
He found that over 25 per cent of the members of the investigated brigade had
starved to death.36 In contrast to Wang Ding, Liang does not mention the
names of the culprits but uses XX. This is a conventional form in Chinese documents
when someone wants to make a case and present a model of wrongdoing,
but not make a formal accusation against an individual. In the end of his article,
Liang raises the question why so many people starved in Bo county when, at the
same time, neighbouring counties suffering from drought were still able to support
Wang argues that the “quality” (suzhi素质) of the cadres from Bo was bad and
they committed serious mistakes during the implementation of policies from
above.37 Once again, local cadres have to play the role of scapegoats for particular
actions even in the narrative of their colleagues. “Quality” has been a term in
official rhetoric since the 1980s. The term is often used by the government to
emphasize the need for an improvement of moral values and education. In the
view of Liang, the Great Leap and the People’s Commune movement were
great mistakes for which “we” were punished with great economic loss and the
hunger of the masses. This means that the central government was responsible
for the wrong “grand strategy.” However, Liang says in the end that China
will become a rich, strong and democratic country under the leadership of the
theory of Deng Xiaoping and the “three represents” of Jiang Zemin. It is unclear
whether he really shows his loyalty to the central government or just uses that formal
phrase to satisfy the censors.
To sum up, in contrast to the memories of intellectuals, the peasants were not a
faceless mass in the memoirs of local cadres, but the suffering victims who
35 Liang Zhiyuan, “‘Dayuejin’ zai Anhui Bo xian” (“The ‘Great Leap Forward’ in Bo county in Anhui”),
Zhonggong dangshi ziliao, No. 75 (2000), pp. 5–31.
36 Ibid. p. 29.
37 For the discourse on “suzhi” see Rachel Murphy, “Turning peasants into modern Chinese citizens:
‘population quality’ discourse, demographic translation and primary education,” The China
Quarterly, No. 177 (2004), pp. 1–20, and Andy Kipnis, “Suzhi: a keyword approach,” The China
Quarterly, No. 186 (2006), pp. 295–313.
184 The China Quarterly, 201, March 2010, pp. 176–194
struggled for survival. They describe the terror and the human suffering of the
peasants in detail.
Henan Province: Avoiding Local Responsibility
In the context of the Great Leap Forward, Henan is a very interesting case,
because in 1958 the province was praised by the Party press as a model for the
whole of China. The first people’s commune was established in Suiping county
in Henan. In 1960, Henan was hit by one of the most serious famines in the
country. In the PRC, the history of a province has to be written within the framework
of national history. There are no Party resolutions for provincial history.
Local historians write their publications according to the canon of the central
government. There was significant variation in death rates in different areas of
China, but the official interpretation remains silent on why this was so. This
begs a serious question, for provinces like Henan and Xinyang in particular,
which had such high death rates that the starvation there prompted a change
in central government policy. While the natural population increase of China
fell to –4.57 (/1,000) in 1960, Henan lost 25.58 (/1,000) of its population. The
mortality rate of Henan in 1960 was higher than the national average (26.3 compared
to 25.4 per 1,000 population), but less than in provinces such as Anhui,
Guizhou or Qinghai.38 According to official figures the famine caused two
million deaths in Henan.39 Cao Shuji mentions 2,939,000 “irregular deaths”
based on the statistics of the county gazettes of Henan.40 Even at the county
level in Henan, the extent of the death rates varied very strikingly.41
The official provincial historiography continues to avoid the question of responsibility
for the Henan famine today. For example, the Gazettes of Henan Province
(shengzhi 省志), over 40 volumes, are written within the framework of national
Chinese history and the Party Resolution of 1981. Hundreds of pages of statistics
show the local conditions, but the authors do not compare these facts and statistics
with the national level. The reader has no way of knowing that the death and birth
rates of Henan show many more irregularities than in most other provinces, and of
course the question of who is responsible for these irregularities does not comeup at all.
The same is true of county gazettes (xianzhi 县志). In China, the county is a
bastion of the state bureaucracy and an important level for the implementation
of central policies in the villages. Every county has to write its own history within
the framework of the official canon. In the gazettes of the counties where I
38 Dali Yang, Calamity and Reform in China – State, Rural Society and Institutional Change since the Great
Leap Forward (Stanford: University Press of California, 1996), p. 38.
39 Zhang Linnan, “Guanyu fan Pan, Yang, Wang shijian” (“On the Anti-Pan, Yang, Wang incident”), in
Zhonggong Henan shengwei dangshi gongzuo weiyuanhui (ed.), Fengyu chunqiu – Pan Fusheng shiwen
jinian ji (Wind and Rain, Spring and Autumn – Poetry and Articles in the Memory of Pan Fusheng)
(Zhengzhou: Henan renmin chubanshe, 1993), p. 323.
40 Cao Shuji, Dajihuang – 1959–1961 nian de Zhongguo renkou (The Great Famine – The Population of
China from 1959 to 1961) (Hong Kong: Dangdai guoji chubanshe gongsi, 2005), p. 264.
41 Wemheuer, Steinnudeln, pp. 151–57.
Dealing with Responsibility for the Great Leap Famine 185
conducted oral history interviews (Xin’an,42 Yiyang43 and Runan44), only a few
pages were written about the Great Leap Forward. The central government
orders the committees for local history to describe the “mistakes” after 1949
very briefly and without great detail.45 Even the death rates given in the county
gazettes are much lower than the internal statistics published by the provincial
government.46 The official national historiography and the formal responsibility
that is attributed to the central government provide a framework to prevent provincial
and county historians from raising the question as to who is primarily
responsible for the great extent of the famine in Henan.
In addition to the problem of how to explain the high death rates, the provincial
government and their historians in Henan had to decide how to evaluate the
power struggle between the inner Party factions of Pan Fusheng (潘复生, 1908–
80), the first Party secretary of the province, and Wu Zhipu (吴芝圃, 1906–67),
the second secretary. The province was established by a unification of Henan
and Pingyuan provinces in 1954, and the Party was divided in two factions:
the old Henan faction was led by Wu Zhi and the Pingyuan faction by Pan
Fusheng.47 Pan Fusheng, as first Party secretary of Henan, was labelled as a
“rightist” for his moderate agrarian policies in 1958. The violent campaign
against him and his followers in the autumn of 1958 left deep wounds within
the Party. His successor Wu Zhipu implemented the Great Leap Forward very
radically. At that time, Mao Zedong and the central government in Beijing supported
the faction of Wu Zhipu. The Henanese radicalism resulted in a catastrophe.
In the aftermath of the Great Leap Forward in 1962, the central
government tried to avoid a split by enforcing a compromise: Pan Fusheng
was rehabilitated, but Wu Zhipu was not officially criticized.48 Pan and Wu
were transferred out of Henan and a new leadership was put in place.
One option for the Party historians could have been to present Wu Zhipu as a
fanatical leftist who was responsible for the famine in Henan and Pan Fusheng as
the realistic and moderate agent of the real spirit of the Party. Such an option was
not possible in Henan, however, because of contradictions between the old
“Henan” faction and the “Pingyuan” faction in the Party which still existed
after the end of the Cultural Revolution. Furthermore, Pan Fusheng could not
be portrayed as the honest model cadre, because he supported the ultra-left
42 Xin’an difangshi zhi bianzuan weiyuanhui (ed.), Xin’an xianzhi (Gazette of Xin’an County) (Zhengzhou:
Henan renmin chubanshe, 1989).
43 Yiyang xianzhi bianzuan weiyuanhui (ed.), Yiyang xianzhi (Gazette of Yiyang County) (Beijing: Sanlian
44 Henansheng Runan xianzhi bianzuan weiyuanhui (ed.), Runan xianzhi (Gazette of Runan County)
(Zhengzhou: Zhongzhou guji chubanshe, 1997).
45 Vivian Wagner, “Erinnerungsverwaltung: die politische Instrumentalisierung von Staatsarchiven in der
VR China” (“The administration of memories: political instrumentalization of the state archives in the
PRC”), unpublished dissertation, University of Heidelberg, 2003, p. 471.
46 Henansheng tongjiju (ed.), Henan sheng renkou tongji ziliao huibian 1949–88 (Collection of Population
Statistics of Henan Province 1949–88) (Zhengzhou: 1989), pp. 556–617.
47 Interview with a Party historian from Henan, 5 August 2005 (Zhengzhou).
48 Wind and Rain, Spring and Autumn, p. 290.
186 The China Quarterly, 201, March 2010, pp. 176–194
during the Cultural Revolution when he was a leader of Heilongjiang province.
As a result, in provincial Party historiography, both leaders were portrayed as
good Marxist-Leninists and revolutionaries and the Provincial Committee for
Party History published memory volumes on them.49 In the volume about Wu
Zhipu, his responsibility for the campaigns against Pan and thousands of other
Party cadres is not even mentioned. This solution might be very unsatisfying
for the cadres who were victimized by the leadership of Wu Zhipu in 1958, but
it helped to avoid discussing the responsibility of the provincial leadership.
Local Cadres and the Responsibility for the “Xinyang Incident”
In addition to the evaluation of factionalism, the Party historians had also to
come to terms with the so-called “Xinyang Incident” and the question of responsibility.
“Incident” is the official label for mass starvation which took place in
Xinyang district in the south of Henan between the spring of 1959 and the winter
of 1960. One historian who had access to the provincial archive said that over two
million peasants starved and were beaten to death in this area.50 The district had
only ten million inhabitants before the outbreak of the famine. Like Henan province,
Xinyang became famous as a model in China in 1958. After false reports of
a record harvest, the state even purchased the peasants’ grain rations and seed
grain.51 The local government, which was supported by Wu Zhipu, blockaded
the region in an attempt to prevent anyone from leaving. In 1961 the central government
sent the PLA to dismiss the Xinyang leadership. After the dismissal of
Lu Xianwen as the leader of the Xinyang region in late 1960, thousands of
local cadres were arrested and punished for the Xinyang Incident. However,
the new leadership did not accuse them of leftist tendencies, but attacked them
for the restoration of landlord rule.52 The new leaders ordered “extra tuition in
the democratic revolution” (minzhu geming buke 民主革命补课). Mao Zedong
supported this interpretation,53 because he could not believe that the crimes of
the Xinyang Incident were committed by people who had implemented recent
Party policies correctly. This label had catastrophic ramifications for the punished
cadres because they were not rehabilitated. The Red Guards even struggled
against Lu Xianwen as a rightist during the Cultural Revolution.54
49 Ibid.; Zhonggong Henan shengwei dangshi gongzuo weiyuanhui (ed.), Jinian Wu Zhipu wenji (Collected
Works in Memory of Wu Zhipu) (Beijing: Zhongyang dangshi chubanshe, 1995).
50 Interview with a Party historian from Henan, 5 August 2005 (Zhengzhou).
51 Hu Tiyun and Hou Zhiying, Dangdai Henan jianshi 1949–1998 (Short History of Modern Henan 1949–
1998) (Beijing: Dangdai Zhongguo chubanshe, 1999), p. 136.
52 Zhonghua renmin gongheguo guojia nongye weiyuanhui bangongting (ed.), “Zhonggong zhongyang dui
Xinyang diwei guanyu zhengfeng zhengshe yundong he shengchang jiuzai gongzuo qingkuang de baogao
de pizhi,” Nongye jitihua zhongyao wenjian huibian (A Collection of Important Documents Regarding the
Collectivization of Agriculture) (Beijing: Zhongyang dangxiao chubanshe, 1981), Vol. 2, p. 423.
53 Gao Hua, “Da zaihuang yu siqing yundong de qiyuan” (“The great famine and the origins of the four
clean up movement”), 2000, http://www.usc.cuhk.edu.hk/wkgb.asp.
54 Li Rui, “‘Xinyang shijian’ jiqi jiaoxun” (“The lessons of the ‘Xinyang Incident’”), Yanhuang chunqiu,
No. 4 (2002), p. 21.
Dealing with Responsibility for the Great Leap Famine 187
Today, the official interpretation of the Xinyang Incident is given within the
framework of the leftism of the local leadership. As in the official historiography,
the local cadres were made scapegoats.55 However, in most of the Chinese books
on the Great Leap Forward the event is not even mentioned. In written memoirs,
retired local cadres from Henan have challenged the views of the provincial Party
historiography. Their treatment as scapegoats, especially for the Xinyang Incident,
has caused deep dissatisfaction. Unlike the narratives of Wang Ding or Liang
Zhiyuan, cadres from Xinyang are questioning the official evaluation of the famine
rather than blaming individual cadres for misguided implementation.
As an example, Zhang Shufan, who held the position of vice-secretary of the
bureau of the Party committee in Xinyang, raised the question of whether the
local famine should be called the “Xinyang Incident” or “Henan Incident.”56
This implicitly means that the provincial leadership under Wu Zhipu has primary
responsibility for it rather than the leader of the region, Lu Xianwen. In his memoirs,
Lu Xianwen is an ignorant and heartless leader who tried to hide the fact
that hundreds of thousand peasants were starving in Xinyang, but he was
shielded by Wu Zhipu. Zhang explains that he demanded the opening of the
grain stores because he did not want to take personal responsibility for starvation.
Because of his suggestion, Lu Xianwen suspended him from work until
Zhang Shufan quotes from a conversation which took place between Wu
Zhipu, Tao Zhu, the Party secretary of the central south region, and himself
after the People’s Liberation Army had changed the government of Xinyang in
1961. According to his memoirs Wu said to him: “Comrade Zhang Shu, the
Party committee of the province did not know in the beginning that the
Xinyang region had problems. I heard that you and Lu Xianwen had different
opinions. Why did you not tell me about it? Maybe the problem had not become
that serious.” Zhang replied: “Comrade Wu, how can you say that the Party
committee of the province did not know about it. Wasn’t the criticism organized
by you?”57 Tao Zhu both inferred and stated that everyone was aware that the
criticism against Zhang was wrong, but now he has been rehabilitated he should
not speak about the topic again. This story shows that Zhang is deeply dissatisfied
that Wu Zhipu was not punished and that the central government saw his
rehabilitation as ending the debate about responsibility.
In his article Zhang also doubts the sense of the rectification movement of
1961. All the secretaries working for the Party committees of the cities and counties
were expelled from the Party and 200,000 local cadres were educated by
“special treatment.” When he saw that soldiers chained up cadres and dismissed
them, he began to cry, asking himself how all these cadres could be
55 Regarding the “Xinyang Incident” see Becker, Hungry Ghosts – China’s Secret Famine, p. 112.
56 Zhang Shufan, “Xinyang shijian: yige chentong de lishi jiaoxun” (“The Xinyang incident: bitter lessons
from history”), Bainian chao, No. 12 (1998), p. 44.
57 Ibid. p. 43.
188 The China Quarterly, 201, March 2010, pp. 176–194
counterrevolutionaries. After the establishment of the new leadership, he was criticized
again for his objections to the punishment of his colleagues. Zhang still
hopes today that history will bring justice to the cadres of Xinyang in the end.
He ends his article with the statement that the people of Henan kept Pan
Fusheng in good memory, but not Wu Zhipu. This statement opposes the official
history of the province. Zhang is unhappy that Wu was never punished and he
sees his own rehabilitation in 1962 for his criticism during the Great Leap as a
way to force him to be silent about the responsibility of the leadership of Henan.
One of the most shocking articles published in the PRC is the memoir of She
Dehong, a retired cadre from the municipality of Xinyang. He writes that despite
the fact that the masses were deeply dissatisfied, nobody dares to make their own
comments against the background of the official evaluation of the Xinyang
Incident, even though it lacks accurate details.58 In contrast to the memories of
Zhang Shufan, She Dehong describes the starvation in detail. On a trip back
to his home village in December 1959, he saw a mountain of over 100 corpses.
After he arrived, he realized that half his family had starved to death. In nearly
every village in Huaibin county, cannibalism took place.59 After he came back
from his home village, he was afraid to tell the truth to his supervisors because
he would be struggled against. The higher-ranking cadres could even beat him
to death and suicide would have been treated as a confession of guilt. It seems
that She Dehong has to justify his silence about the starvation – even to himself –
to this day. He wants to make the reader understand that it was very dangerous
to speak about the starvation during the famine.
In the spring of 1960, nutrition in the public mess halls improved somewhat.
The corpses began to smell horribly, but people recovered enough strength to
bury them. In order to cover up the extent of the starvation, the local government
decided to dig mass graves with over 100 corpses in them.60 She Dedong estimates
that the grain in the grain stores of Xinyang was enough to feed 8 million
peasants with a ration of 400 grams per day. If the government had opened the
grain stores, nobody would have starved.61
Even though She Dehong does not directly attack the official evaluation of Wu
Zhipu, he finds that the punishment of thousands of local cadres in the rectification
campaign of 1961 was not fair. He is deeply upset that so many peasants
starved to death. Thus although these local cadre accounts differ in their
emphases and particular content, in aggregate they bring the suffering, starvation
and terror of the Great Leap Famine to the discourse, because they have family
connections in the villages and saw it with their own eyes. They are unhappy with
the scapegoating of local cadres, especially in Xinyang, and are particularly
58 She Dehong, “Guanyu ‘Xinyang shijian’ de yishu” (“Memories of the ‘Xinyang Incident’”), in
Zhongguo nongcunyanjiu bianji weiyuanhui (ed.), Zhongguo nongcun yanjiu 2002 quan (Bejing:
Zhongguo shehui kexue chubanshe, 2003), p. 325.
59 Ibid. p. 329.
60 Ibid. p. 330.
61 Ibid. p. 331.
Dealing with Responsibility for the Great Leap Famine 189
unhappy because thousands were labelled as counterrevolutionaries rather than
mere “leftists.” Even 50 years after the event, retired cadres feel the need to
express their own views of the famine and challenge the official evaluation of
the responsibility in Henan.
Responsibility in the Memories of the Villagers
In order to access the memories of the villagers, I went to four villages in Henan
in February and July 2005 and conducted oral history interviews with over 25
peasants and cadres who are now over 65 years old and who would have been
teenagers or adults during the famine. I visited two villages in Xin’an county
near Luoyang in the west of Henan and conducted research in the county
archives. The third village is located in Yiyang county. In summer 2005 I went
to Judong, a village in Runan county which was under the administration of
Xinyang during the famine.62 While in Xin’an and Yiyang county the death
rates were relatively low, according to the memories of the villagers in Runan
county, half the population starved to death. This article focuses only on the
role the question of responsibility plays in the memories of the villagers.
All in all, the language of the villagers, cadres and peasants is not influenced by
official Party historiography as strongly as the urban intellectuals. Keywords of
the official historiography – such as communism, “three years of natural disaster,”
left-wing radicalism or utopian socialism – did not play any role in the memories
of the old villagers. In contrast, young villagers who helped me to find
interviewees were often influenced by the official school text books. The former
cadre Chen Chuwu remembered the Great Leap Forward as nothing but working
in the fields and on the construction sites day and night.63 Nobody remembered
any utopian euphoric mood in 1958. While official historians blame peasant egalitarianism
as one of the origins of leftist policies,64 the villagers see themselves as
victims of the Communist Party and its policies. When I asked the peasant Li
Zhuru, who was 17 years old in 1958, whether he had been willing to join the
People’s Commune, it seemed to him to be a strange question. He answered:
“If you were willing or not, you just had to join.”65 Nobody presented himself
or herself as a former supporter of Mao Zedong and his movements which
seem to be senseless today. Li Zhuru even called the whole Mao era a “waste
of labour and money” (laomin shangcai 劳民伤财). Against this backdrop of
total repudiation of the Mao era, everyone could avoid the question of their
own responsibility. Most of my interviewees lost their belief in Mao Zedong
during the famine. However, the central state played no important role in the
memories of the villagers.
62 All names of persons and villages are pseudonyms.
63 Interview with Chen Chuwu, 12 February 2005 (Baotou, Xin’an county, Henan).
64 Bo Yibo, Reflections on Certain Major Decisions and Events, Vol. 2, p. 1285.
65 Interview with Li Zhuru, 12 February 2005 (Baotou, Xin’an county, Henan).
190 The China Quarterly, 201, March 2010, pp. 176–194
Stealing unripened grain (chi qing 吃青) and eating things like grass were the
survival strategies of the peasants. In the mountain area in the west of Henan
there was even a black market providing expensive food. The villagers see themselves
as active victims, because they had their own survival strategies during the
famine. In this context, the question of personal responsibility is relevant, because
stealing or running away harmed other people. Statements like, “everybody was a
thief, even the children” or “everybody just took care of himself,”66 demonstrate
that these survival strategies were widely accepted under the circumstances of the
famine. In the village Judong in Runan county, the men from the production
team fled to Qinghai province in 1959 and left their parents, wives and children
alone at home. According to the memories of the villagers, most of the children
and the elderly starved to death. In 1961 in Qinghai, after the news that private
plots had been reintroduced and the famine was over, the men went back to
Judong. In interviews, the women did not blame the men for running away.
Against the experience of the co-operated exodus, cadres and peasants presented
themselves as a united community in their memories.
In Judong, the villagers talked openly about cannibalism. Even the peasants
who fled to Qinghai province heard rumours about cannibalism in Guangshan
county in the Xinyang region. The student Zhang Xueli asked Wu Tiancheng,
the former leader of the production team: “At that time people ate the corpses
of people who had been starved before. Is that correct?” Wu answered: “Yes,
corpses. At that time the people had no choice.”67 Wu did not morally condemn
cannibalism. Everyone in Judong heard about it, but nobody confessed his or her
own involvement or mentioned names of people who did it. In doing so, nobody
in particular could be blamed for these terrible events.
The cadres I interviewed did not deny their power and privileges during the
famine. For example, Li Pengkui became the Party secretary of the production
brigade in 1958. Even in the beginning he spoke out that the peasants were starving
and a lot of them got dropsy. Li said: “At that time a cadre was like an
emperor. You could be struggled against anytime he wanted. If he wanted you
to sweep the street, you had to do it. I was the Party secretary of the brigade ….
The few thousand people in the village were under my command.”68 He said
he was privileged (shenghuo te shuhua 生活特殊化), because the cadres managed
the food in the public mess halls, the financial budget and the work point system.
As a result, they could use hunger as a weapon. Li ordered even peasants with
dropsy to work in the fields. In spite of the fact that he had so much power,
he did not accept any personal responsibility for harming the hungry peasants
or even raise the question of it. Today, Li believes that the Communist Party
betrayed him as a loyal follower, because he did get any pension. On the
67 Interview with Wu Tianchen, August 2005 (Judong, Runan county, Henan).
68 Interview with Li Pengkui, 11 February 2005 (Baotou, Xin’an county, Henan).
Dealing with Responsibility for the Great Leap Famine 191
contrary, he presents himself as a victim. He regrets his dedication to the CCP,
but he feels no personal guilt for his actions against the peasants.
In Henan, beatings and torture were aspects of daily life at the struggle meetings
during the Great Leap Forward. Peasants and cadres told frightening stories
about this political terror, but in most cases they did not mention any names of
particular cadres. In the interviews, retired village cadres and children of former
“rightists” criticized Mao Zedong and the Communist Party, but still tried to
maintain harmony within the village. While the cadres show sympathy for the
grievances of the “bad elements” and their children, the former outcasts of the
village do not blame them. The memories of cadres, peasants, men and women
had so much in common that I treat the rural neighbourhood in the natural villages
as one united collective memory.
While the villagers believe that the central government was responsible for the
famine, they did not demand an apology or compensation, but they are conscious
of moral responsibility for the famine. Peasants were able to remember the power
struggle between Wu Zhipu and Pan Fusheng which led to a radicalization of
the Great Leap in Henan, but it does not seem to be important for them.
Things are more complicated when it comes to assigning responsibility for
the Xinyang Incident. Most of the villagers I interviewed had heard about the
Xinyang Incident and the mass starvation, even in the counties close to
Luoyang. In the aftermath of the famine, local cadres who joined an investigation
team told their neighbors in Baotao about mountains of crops on the streets in
the Xinyang region. The peasants outside Xinyang used a comparison with the
“Incident” to explain that the situation of their villages was not that bad.69
For the villagers in Judong which was under the administration of Xinyang
during the famine, it was unclear who should be blamed. The young peasant
woman Xuemei even asked me: “Who was responsible for the ‘Xinyang
Incident’?”70 The old cadre Li Minghu who was a manager of a public mess
hall in 1958 said that Mao Zedong and the central government did not know
about the mass starvation in Xinyang.71 Li was the only interviewee who referred
to the legend of the good emperor and the evil local officials. The villagers
remembered that the leader of the region, Lu Xianwen, was responsible for
false reports in 1959, but they did not know that the Party secretary of their
own county was sent to prison in 1961. The power struggle in the county leadership
had no connection with their daily life.
The narrative of villagers differs from the official historiography in a striking
way, but they share one thing in common. At the moment, neither the villagers
nor the state want to raise the question of responsibility for particular crimes or
actions. The memories are constructed in a way which saves the harmony in the
69 Interview with Li Bin, 12 February 2005 (Baotou, Xin’an county, Henan).
70 Interview with Huang Xuemei, 8 August 2005 (Judong, Runan county, Henan).
71 Interview with Li Minghu, 9 August 2005 (Judong, Runan county, Henan).
192 The China Quarterly, 201, March 2010, pp. 176–194
Disconnected Discourses and the Hegemony of the CCP
In the PRC, different discourses about the responsibility for the Great Leap famine
have developed. The memories of urban intellectuals are close to the official
interpretation which tries to avoid the debate through the acknowledgment of the
formal responsibility of the central government. In Henan, the dissatisfaction felt
by local cadres with their role as scapegoats challenges the official memories.
Local cadres from other regions blame colleagues for the excesses of the Great
Leap. These cadres bring sensitive topics like starvation and cannibalism to the
discourse. Local cadres from Henan raise the question of the moral and legal
responsibility of the provincial government and Wu Zhipu. The collective memories
in the villages included suffering and the privileges of the local cadres during
the famine. The memories of the villagers are not influenced by the explanations
of the official interpretation, things such as leftism or bad weather. The peasants
see themselves as active victims who managed to survive.
Neither the state nor members of society want to discuss their own responsibility
for any particular actions. At the same time, the official interpretation of
responsibility which had been defined in the Resolution of 1981 fails to give a
convincing answer to the question of responsibility; final judgements remain elusive.
The discourses about the Great Leap are unlinked and have no connection
with each other. As long as there is no link between the discussions of urban intellectuals,
dissatisfied local cadres and the rural communities as a source for memories
of starvation, the official interpretation will not lose its hegemonic position.
In her research about the memories of the Cultural Revolution, Susanne
Weigelin-Schwiedrzik, has discussed a phenomenon she calls “fragmented memories.”
She has pointed out that in different groups and factions of the Red
Guard, rebels could remember their own suffering and see themselves as victims.
72 Regarding the Great Leap, the memories are fragmented as well. This
leads to the question of which social and political factors could explain these
An objective reason for the disconnected discourses is the legacy of the dual
society (eryuan shehui 二元社会) in China.73 During the Mao era, urban and
rural society was divided by the household registration system (hukou 户口)
which forced the peasants to stay in their villages. These walls between cities
and villages continue to exist in the minds of the Chinese people. I have seen
that many intellectuals are not interested in the problems of the peasants. In
the system of dual society, peasants had no access to the public space. In present-
72 Susanne Weigelin-Schwiedrzik, “In search of a master narrative for 20th-century Chinese history,”
The China Quarterly, No. 188 (2006), p. 1072. Regarding “fragmented memories” see also Lee and
Yang, Re-envisioning the Chinese Revolution, p. 5.
73 Regarding the separation between rural and urban society see Sulamith Heins Potter, “The position of
peasants in modern China’s social order,” Modern China, Vol. 9, No. 4. (1983), and Tiejun Cheng and
Mark Selden Cheek, “The construction of spatial hierarchies: China’s hukou and danwei system,” in
Timothy Cheek and Tony Saich (eds.), New Perspectives on State Socialism in China (London: M.E.
Sharpe, 1999), pp. 23–50.
Dealing with Responsibility for the Great Leap Famine 193
day China, state-controlled labour union, businessmen’s or artists’ organizations
were founded, but no peasant associations. Furthermore, the hierarchical structure
of the Leninist Party does not require that high-ranking cadres in Beijing
take the memories of local cadres from Henan seriously and understand them
as part of a discourse about national history. Most historians of the counties
in Henan accepted the official interpretation, because under this paradigm they
can avoid discussing the responsibility that local governments might have for
The gap between urban and rural society also forms part of the large gap
between the state and villages. In my interviews, even cadres of the rural townships
believe they are not a part of the countryside.74 My field study points out
that archival documents written by county officials and memories of the peasants
focus on different topics. Peasant strategies of survival, such as stealing unripened
grain in the field, the so-called eating green, are hardly mentioned in the archival
documents. On the one hand, professional historians in China have learned to
focus on the leadership, not on the peasants. On the other, the official interpretation
of the Great Leap has not reached the minds of the older villagers who
experienced the famine. Urban intellectuals and historians are often not aware
that collective memories of the famine continue to exist in rural communities.
These might be the reasons why the memories and discourse about the famine
Moreover, there is no other event in post-1949 history that challenges the legitimacy
of the CCP at such a high degree; the fact that millions of peasants starved
in New China is a terrible shame. In the memories of the villagers, the famine is
not an isolated event, but often linked to other disastrous experiences such as the
Cultural Revolution or the corruption of today.75 If intellectuals are looking for
an ally to overcome Party rule, they could start to transmit the memories of the
peasants into the public space and use the famine as an argument against the rule
of the CCP.
Museums for the victims could be built, something which Kang Jian had
already demanded in 1998.76 Forty years after the event it is difficult to clarify
the legal responsibility for the famine. The last leading cadre of the central government
who was in office during the Great Leap Forward, Deng Xiaoping, died
in 1997, and most of the local cadres who tortured and murdered people during
the famine have already died or are very elderly. Investigations into what exactly
happened in the countryside would bring conflicts to every rural community.
It currently seems as though peasants and cadres try to avoid trouble. But should
there be political polarization, memories of the suffering in the past and anger
about the present could become an explosive mixture.
74 Interview with Huang Liang, 12 February 2005 (Wangcun, Yiyang county, Henan).
75 Wemheuer, Steinnudeln, pp. 230–32.
76 Kang Jian, Huihuan de huanmie –Renmingongshe de jingshilu (The Glorious Disillusion – Warning about
the People’s Commune) (Beijing: Zhongguo shehui chubanshe, 1998), p. 558.
194 The China Quarterly, 201, March 2010, pp. 176–194
May 17, 2010
Dealing with Responsibility for the Great Leap Famine in the People’s Republic of China Felix Wemheuer
ABSTRACT In the aftermath of the famine in 1962, Mao Zedong took
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